The Point Is to Change It: “Neutrality” and Academia

This is a paper I wrote for class a while ago. I thought parts of it might be of interest to some, so I’m posting it here as the inaugural post of this new blog.

My family and I have a few political disagreements. Ok, I’ll be honest, we have a lot of significant political disagreements. At some point in my teenage years I decided that debating with them was a waste of my time, and that it would be best if we refrained from talking politics, for the health of our familial unity. Of course, not talking about politics altogether would be impossible given how big a part it plays in day-to-day life in my home country of Paraguay. So I decided I would stop talking politics with them aside from the merely factual. That is, we could talk about each party’s platform, how many votes each candidate got, who won the primaries, etc., but never which party is better, never who I will be voting for. This proved to be near impossible. Although I almost never go on long diatribes about my beliefs, my ideology is certainly infused in the way I approach our discussions, and little bits and pieces of it slip out every once in a while. And I see my family three weeks a year at the most.

Yet Max Weber, in his essay “Science as a Vocation,” is asking academics to do exactly that. And not only for a week or two, but for every lecture throughout their careers. This seems to be an extremely difficult thing to ask. Not merely in the sense I illustrated above, of having to resist the ‘urge’ to proclaim one’s views, but also in the sense that it may not even possible to have a substantial discussion of politics without allowing our value judgments to shape it. Interesting as this question is, I would like to focus most of this essay on a different question. Even if it were possible to subtract all value judgments from the lecture-room, would it be desirable? In order to answer this question we must delve into the role academia plays in society, and the kind of responsibilities that come with various positions at a university. I will argue that, though we should not turn academia into a game of convincing everyone else to agree with us, it is our duty as academics to challenge each others’ views from our own principled positions.

Weber believes that “politics is out of place in the classroom” both for docents and students (Weber 145). By this Weber does not mean that one should not study politics at universities. Rather, he means that if we are to study politics, we should study it as scholars and not as political actors. To illustrate the point, he contrasts the ways in which one would talk about democracy at a political meeting and the ways one would talk about it in a lecture room: In the first “one does not hide one’s personal standpoint; indeed, to come out clearly and to take a stand is one’s damned duty” (145). In the second, instead, “one considers [democracy’s] various forms, analyzes them in the way they function, determines what results for the conditions of life the one form has compared with the other” (145). That is, the goal of speaking at a political meeting is to incite political action, whereas the goal of speaking at a lecture-room is clarification of the facts. The two cannot be mixed, should not be mixed. In Weber’s words: “the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform” (146).

He gives a few reasons for this. The first is that, on the part of the teacher, it is unfair to the student to give a lecture based on one’s views where people with opposing views are unable to respond (146). The second, and perhaps most important, is that “whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases” (146). That is, ideologies cloud the facts and make science less rigorous. The third, related to the first, is that the professor ought to serve all of his students, including those with different beliefs from hers, and giving a one-sided view cannot do this.

But allow me to problematize Weber’s account a bit. In all sciences, and especially those that deal closely with human culture and politics, one is not primarily concerned with facts. Of course, one must pay attention to the facts, but I would never go to a lecture in sociology or economics or philosophy in which the professor merely recited the latest demographic trends or read quotes from this or that great thinker. Instead, a student goes to lectures to hear an interpretation of the facts. And how can this interpretation be free from judgment?

To illustrate this, allow me to give two interpretations of the same ‘factual’ situation. I could say, for example, “in most Western societies, women traditionally do the majority of the housework in exchange for men providing the majority of the household’s income.” This type of narrative is not foreign to Western thought, and does not appear to violate the ‘facts’ in any obvious way. However, I could also say that “in most Western societies, the family is founded upon women’s unpaid labor in the home.” Both provide a different narrative of the same ‘facts,’ but they point to radically different conclusions about them. Which would Weber choose? He could not possibly give every narrative on every set of facts, and which narratives he chooses to privilege cannot depend merely on ‘the facts.’1 It would appear that Weber’s choice would necessarily depend on some kind of value judgment. Of course, he can always add a caveat at the end of the lecture: “This is not the only way to look at these facts, such and such authors have theorized this and that relationship is most relevant.” But in some sense, the damage is already done. Weber has “let the facts speak for themselves” (146) for the whole lecture, and the political convictions of many students may have been affected by Weber’s choice of a narrative. A caveat at the end is unlikely to change much.

So perhaps Nietzsche was right when he said “perspectival seeing is the only kind of seeing there is, perspectival ‘knowing’ the only kind of ‘knowing’” (98). Nevertheless, we may grant to Weber that it is possible to diminish the extent to which our perspective shapes a discussion. For example, I could have offered a third narrative to the example above that went: “in most Western societies, women are subjected to the domination of men in the household and society at large, and are forced to perform slave labor for their husbands.” If Weber had gone with this narrative, he would have given little wiggle room to his students. Here the premises and the conclusions are all built into the interpretation, the ideology is rammed down the students’ throats rather than served neatly on the table for their taking. And of course, it is not necessary to ram ideology down students’ throats—everyone knows undergraduates are hungry and will seek it by themselves. But it is, I believe, the duty of the professor to offer principled arguments in favor of positions that may not necessarily mesh well with the students’ preconceived notions.

It would be impossible to determine exactly what degree of interpretation should be allowed in a lecture-room, and I will not attempt to determine it here. However, I will argue against Weber’s suggestion that the job of the academic is to minimize the influence of his personal views at all costs. He says: “it is certainly possible that the individual teacher will not entirely succeed in eliminating his personal sympathies. He is then exposed to the sharpest criticism of his own conscience” (146). The suggestion is here that, to the extent that the professors’ views affect her teaching, she should feel guilty.

In order to understand my opposition to Weber, let us pull back to what the goal of science is. There appear to be two central themes for him: the search for ‘technical’ results, i.e. immediately useful, practical discoveries, as well as the search for truth as an end in itself (144). Of course, here we must add: Useful to whom? True from whose perspective? Mathematician G. H. Hardy famously joked that “a science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life” (33). A liberal would say that the university is there to serve society as a whole, a Marxist would probably say that it serves the ruling class. One might say academic freedom dictates that a university must allow a professor’s research to be directed towards whomever she chooses to serve, be it the working class, the state or capital. Of course, this only works ideally, and in reality academic freedom has limits. Ultimately it is not the professor who decides what is ‘useful’ research, but the owners of the university, though often in the West buffered by an independent administration. But for the sake of this argument, so long as it is contributing to some sector of society, let us call a professor’s research useful.

If we accept this premise, then we must certainly accept that a professor’s research will be shaped by her standpoint, and hopefully will shape her standpoint. Marx famously defined the task of the radical intellectual thus: “the work of our time to clarify to itself . . . the meaning of its own struggle and its own desires” (15). This self-clarification is useful to the professor and to all those who share her cause. To this we must add the researcher’s role in studying the ways to realize her principles. This kind of research necessarily presupposes the professor’s ideology.

Let us now turn to the student. Here, I think, the position of the student is double. Weber says “the primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts—I mean facts that are inconvenient to their party opinions” (147). The professor must show her students the contradictions of their positions—and all positions have contradictions somewhere. And of course, she will emphasize the contradictions which favor her particular viewpoint. That is inevitable. But on the other hand, it is also the role of the student to challenge his professors. As linguist and activist Noam Chomsky writes, academics are in an ideal position

to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. (“The Responsibility of Intellectuals”)

But there are all kinds of pressures, internal and external, that could prevent professors from exercising their special duty as citizens in a privileged position. Weber says he would deplore it if pacifist students were to make an uproar around the desk of his colleague Dietriech Schäfer (145), an old chauvinistic historian. I would say, on the contrary, it is their duty as students to hold their professors to the highest standards, to liberate academia from the interests that control it. Going back to Chomsky:

it may be that a movement for resistance and social change might contribute to the evolution of a tradition of scholarship that is more humane and more objective,2 that will free itself from a commitment to social management in the interest of privileged elites and will explore and try to articulate the needs of those whose voices are stilled by ideological controls, by weakness and ignorance, by social fragmentation, or simply by repressive force. (“The Menace of Liberal Scholarship”)

If Weber is truly committed to the kind of pluralism he espouses (cf. 152), he must also be in favor of an academia that is not beholden to any particular class interests. Given the students’ special position as not yet members of any class (except perhaps by inheritance), they are particularly well-disposed as agents of this independence of academia from society’s structures of power. Thus it is certainly also their role to challenge their professors’ narratives and beliefs. This, of course, assumes that the professors are willing to be open about them, which brings us back to where we started.

I conclude that academia is certainly the place to talk about our personal standpoints, perhaps the best place to talk about them in modern liberal democracies. I grant to Weber that we must not allow professors to merely indoctrinate students into their personal beliefs, but I do not think that bringing their convictions to light necessitates a stifling of debate. Professors and students ought to challenge each other on their respective standpoints, so that our collective narratives may be improved dialectically. To be charitable to Weber, I imagine the dynamics of the university when he taught were very different from today, and perhaps that kind of dialogue on the same level was not possible. However, I believe that if we want our universities of today to serve the roles that Weber believed they must have, as centers for the service of society and for the quest for truth, open debate of our political and moral ideologies is an absolute necessity. Who needs prophets and demagogues when we have ourselves, our institutions, and our capacity for reason and debate?

1 Gilles Deleuze put it thus: “All this, however, presupposes codes or axioms which do not result by chance, but which do not have an intrinsic rationality either. It’s just like theology: everything about it is quite rational if you accept sin, the immaculate conception, and the incarnation. Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors. Underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift” (262). Without necessitating such a radical epistemology, we can accept that the axioms which one chooses for one’s interpretation are not wholly independent of facts, but somewhere underneath them there is a value judgment which does not have a direct dependence on the facts.

2 Given that I have been challenging the possibility of an “objective” scholarship, let us assume that by objectivity here is meant “not centered around one particular standpoint,” i.e. not representative of the perspectives of any one particular class.

Works cited

Chomsky, Noam. “The Menace of Liberal Scholarship.” The New York Review of Books. 2 Jan. 1969: The Menace of Liberal Scholarship, by Noam Chomsky. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.

Chomsky, Noam. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” The New York Review of Books. 23 Feb. 1967: The Responsibility of Intellectuals, by Noam Chomsky. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

Deleuze, Gilles. Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974). Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e), 2003. Print.

Hardy, Godfrey H. A Mathematician’s Apology. University of Alberta Mathematical Sciences Society, Mar. 2005. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

Marx, Karl. “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 12-15. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Douglas Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Weber, Max. “Science as a Vocation.” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Ed. Hans H. Gerth and Charles W. Mills. London: Routledge, 1998. 129-56. Print.

Author: Mauricio Maluff Masi

My name is Mauricio Maluff Masi. I was born in Asunción, Paraguay; graduated from Pearson College, and I’m now a senior at Northwestern University majoring in Mathematics and Philosophy. This blog is where I publish my political musings and other writings. If you want to contact me, you can leave comments here or e-mail me at mmaluff (at) gmail (dot) com. You may also find me on twitter at @mmaluff.

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